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Parenting

The curse of a mean mother Add to ...

It was a last act everyone urged her to make.

But Peg Streep was torn after her brother called to say their mother was dying. Should she rush to the bedside of a woman who fed and clothed her, but who was also cruel, emotionally unavailable, and who had, in Ms. Streep's mind, never truly loved her?

"The advice was very, very heartfelt because everybody felt that seeing my mother one last time would give closure," she says. That's how it happens in the movies, she says. But not in real life.

"I didn't go and I have never regretted it," Ms. Streep writes in her new book Mean Mothers: Overcoming a Legacy of Hurt. "This is, I know, a story no one wants to hear."

While tales of moms as abusive tyrants or perfect angels of the house have become stereotypes, the emotionally distant, impatient and neglectful mother remains a taboo figure. And just as a loving mother raises a well-adjusted woman, a mean mother shapes her scorned daughter's life, smashes the ideal of the perfect mother-daughter bond and causes her to question all other relationships in her world.

"A mean mother is a mother who is not receptive or not attuned to her daughter," the 60-year-old author said recently from her home in Burlington, Vt. "At the end of the day, when that daughter becomes old enough to engage her mother in dialogue and to begin to sort out the relationship, the mother remains unresponsive, unattuned."

Ms. Streep interviewed dozens of women who grew up in the shadow of jealous, hypercritical, neglectful and cruel mothers. While trying to make sense of her own painful childhood, Ms. Streep found a mother's inability to connect with her child was aggravated by pressures to be perfect.

"That cookie-cutter of the good mother doesn't take into account that the woman who gave birth has her own personality, has her own way of looking at things, has her own reactivity," she says.

Most of the daughters interviewed for the book are baby boomers, Ms. Streep adds, born at a time when birth control was virtually unavailable and the expectation to marry and multiply was strong.

But despite the tensions of the day, daughters carry that curse with them in their modern lives.

"The mean mother links are generational," she says. "Daughters of mean mothers, without therapy or without someone to mentor them, will become mean mothers themselves."

This leads many of them to put off motherhood or skip it altogether. Women Ms. Streep interviewed for her book waited until their mid-30s or later to have children, not due to work and life circumstances, but because of their hesitance to become a mother. Ms. Streep herself didn't have daughter Alexandra Israel, 21, until she was 39.

Daughters of mean mothers can grow up to have trouble connecting with others, says Heidi Bailey, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Guelph who studies the impact of childhood maltreatment in parenting on children's socio-development.

"You're going to experience a lot of negative emotions, you're not going to know how to resolve those emotions and you're not ever going to have the sense of what it's like to be in an emotionally close relationship," she says. "So how are you supposed to recreate an emotionally close relationship with your child if your brain is actually wired in the absence [of one]"

While every human being is wired to love and care for other human beings, moms aren't necessarily hard-wired to love their children, she adds. This deems "a mother's love" a myth, says Andrea O'Reilly, director of the Association for Research on Mothering at York University.

"We really hang a lot on the belief that mother's love is innate, timeless, and when I challenge that myth in my teaching research, a lot of people get really upset," she says. "We know that our partner's love will come and go … but it's this bedrock in our lives, that a mother's love is timeless, unconditional and forever."

While bringing tough mother-daughter relationships into the spotlight can be helpful, she says, branding an uncaring mother who is not close to her daughter as "mean" only further demonizes a role that's already fraught with tension.

Not all women are meant to be mothers, just like some men are not father material, she argues. But attaching the mean label to a mother in particular worries Ayelet Waldman, the Berkeley, Calif., author of Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace , who says it's just one more way to ply women with guilt.

"Not everyone is a paragon of virtue," she says. "It's really hard to have a mother who doesn't give you everything you think you need, but you know, the condition of our contemporary society is one experiences that, and then extrapolates that."

Even after unearthing and analyzing the reasons for a mother's meanness, Ms. Streep still struggles to come to terms with her own mom's distance.

"You can come to a place of understanding and peace, but really understanding why it is that the person who brought you into the world didn't love you, you don't ever really understand it completely," she says. "You just get to a place of acceptance."

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